Books that Stanford historians recommend

The Restless Clock
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The Restless Clock

by Jessica Riskin

About the book:  Today, a scientific explanation is not meant to ascribe agency to natural phenomena: we would not say a rock falls because it seeks the center of the earth. Even for living things, in the natural sciences and often in the social sciences, the same is true. A modern botanist would not say that plants pursue sunlight. This has not always been the case, nor, perhaps, was it inevitable. Since the seventeenth century, many thinkers have made agency, in various forms, central to science. The Restless Clock examines the history of this principle, banning agency, in the life sciences. It also tells the story of dissenters embracing the opposite idea: that agency is essential to nature. The story begins with the automata of early modern Europe, as models for the new science of living things, and traces questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck, and Darwin, among many others. Mechanist science, Jessica Riskin shows, had an associated theology: the argument from design, which found evidence for a designer in the mechanisms of nature. Rejecting such appeals to a supernatural God, the dissenters sought to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to a “divine engineer.” Their model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines. The conflict between passive- and active-mechanist approaches maintains a subterranean life in current science, shaping debates in fields such as evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. This history promises not only to inform such debates, but also our sense of the possibilities for what it means to engage in science—and even what it means to be alive.

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Partners of the Empire
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Partners of the Empire

by Ali Yaycioglu

About the book:  Partners of Empire offers a radical rethinking of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Over this unstable period, the Ottoman Empire faced political crises, institutional shakeups, and popular insurrections. It responded through various reform options and settlements. New institutional configurations emerged; constitutional texts were codified—and annulled. The empire became a political theater where different actors struggled, collaborated, and competed on conflicting agendas and opposing interests. This book takes a holistic look at the era, interested not simply in central reforms or in regional developments, but in their interactions. Drawing on original archival sources, Ali Yaycioglu uncovers the patterns of political action—the making and unmaking of coalitions, forms of building and losing power, and expressions of public opinion. Countering common assumptions, he shows that the Ottoman transformation in the Age of Revolutions was not a linear transition from the old order to the new, from decentralized state to centralized, from Eastern to Western institutions, or from pre-modern to modern. Rather, it was a condensed period of transformation that counted many crossing paths, as well as dead-ends, all of which offered a rich repertoire of governing possibilities to be followed, reinterpreted, or ultimately forgotten.

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Reading Rio de Janeiro
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Reading Rio de Janeiro

by Zephyr Frank

About the book:  "Reading Rio de Janeiro" is an experiment in literary and social history, which combines literary analysis and the tools of close and distant reading with quantitative evidence from archival sources in order to reveal new insights regarding the integration of individuals into a complex and changing society.

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Workers and Thieves
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Workers and Thieves

by Joel Beinin

About the book:  The book describes the central role of workers and the unemployed in the run up to and the aftermath of the popular uprisings of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt.

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Afghan Modern
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Afghan Modern

by Robert D. Crews

About the book:  Rugged, remote, riven by tribal rivalries and religious violence, Afghanistan seems to many a forsaken country frozen in time. Robert Crews presents a bold challenge to this misperception. During their long history, Afghans have engaged and connected with a wider world, occupying a pivotal position in the Cold War and the decades that followed.

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Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China
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Polyandry and Wife-Selling in Qing Dynasty China

by Matthew H. Sommer

About the book:  This book is a study of polyandry, wife-selling, and a variety of related practices in China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). By analyzing over 1200 legal cases from local and central court archives, Matthew Sommer explores the functions played by marriage, sex, and reproduction in the survival strategies of the rural poor under conditions of overpopulation, worsening sex ratios, and shrinking farm sizes. Polyandry and wife-selling represented opposite ends of a spectrum of strategies. At one end, polyandry was a means to keep the family together by expanding it. A woman would bring in a second husband in exchange for his help supporting her family. In contrast, wife sale was a means to survive by breaking up a family: a husband would secure an emergency infusion of cash while his wife would escape poverty and secure a fresh start with another man. Even though Qing law prohibited both practices under the rubric "illicit sexual relations," Sommer shows how magistrates charged with propagating and enforcing a fundamentalist Confucian vision of female chastity tried to cope with their social reality in the face of daunting poverty. This contradiction illuminates both the pragmatism of routine adjudication and the increasingly dysfunctional nature of the dynastic state in the face of mounting social crisis. By casting a spotlight on the rural poor and the experiences of both men and women, Sommer provides an alternative to the standard paradigms of women’s history that have long dominated scholarship on gender and sexuality in late imperial China.

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Radical Equality
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Radical Equality

by Aishwary Kumar

About the book:  B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India's constitution, and Indian nationalist M.K. Gandhi, the two figures whose policies and legacies have most contributed to Indian democracy, are typically considered antagonists who held irreconcilable views of empire and political and social reform. As such, they are rarely studied together. This book reassesses their complex relationship, focusing on what it identifies as a mutual commitment to unconditional equality as inseparable from the struggle for sovereignty. These two major nonwestern thinkers inherited the concept of equality from Western humanism, but their ideas mark a radical turn in secular and humanist conceptions of politics. This history of their encounter traces the philosophical foundations of their thought in Indian and Western traditions, both religious and secular. But more than a study of an encounter,Radical Equality explores the paradoxes and risks of democracy in modern political thought. It is particularly attentive to slippages whereby their militant demands for egalitarian justice are compromised or contradicted by their own moral practices, and where the language of nonviolence lapses into that of force or sacrifice. Excavating the intellectual kinship of Ambedkar and Gandhi, Aishwary Kumar allows them to shed light on each other, even as he places them within a global constellation of moral political thinkers (Rousseau, Dewey, Marx, Nietzsche). The story of their struggle against inequality, violence, and empire thus transcends national boundaries and unfolds within a broader twentieth-century history of ideas.

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Fateful Ties
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Fateful Ties

by Gordon H. Chang

About the book:  Americans look to China with fascination and fear, unsure whether it is friend or foe but certain it will play a crucial role in their future. This is nothing new, Gordon Chang says. Fateful Ties draws on literature, art, biography, popular culture, and politics to trace America’s long and varied preoccupation with China.

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Burned Bridge
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Burned Bridge

by Edith Sheffer

About the book:  The building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 shocked the world. Ever since, the image of this impenetrable barrier between East and West, imposed by communism, has been a central symbol of the Cold War. Based on vast research in untapped archival, oral, and private sources, Burned Bridge reveals the hidden origins of the Iron Curtain, presenting it in a startling new light. Historian Edith Sheffer's unprecedented, in-depth account focuses on Burned Bridge-the intersection between two sister cities, Sonneberg and Neustadt bei Coburg, Germany's largest divided population outside Berlin. Sheffer demonstrates that as Soviet and American forces occupied each city after the Second World War, townspeople who historically had much in common quickly formed opposing interests and identities. The border walled off irreconcilable realities: the differences of freedom and captivity, rich and poor, peace and bloodshed, and past and present. Sheffer describes how smuggling, kidnapping, rape, and killing in the early postwar years led citizens to demand greater border control on both sides--long before East Germany fortified its 1,393 kilometer border with West Germany. It was in fact the American military that built the first barriers at Burned Bridge, which preceded East Germany's borderland crackdown by many years. Indeed, Sheffer shows that the physical border between East and West was not simply imposed by Cold War superpowers, but was in some part an improvised outgrowth of an anxious postwar society. Ultimately, a wall of the mind shaped the wall on the ground. East and West Germans became part of, and helped perpetuate, the barriers that divided them. From the end of World War II through two decades of reunification, Sheffer traces divisions at Burned Bridge with sharp insight and compassion, presenting a stunning portrait of the Cold War on a human scale.

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A Chosen Exile
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A Chosen Exile

by Allyson Hobbs

About the book:  Countless African Americans have passed as white, leaving behind families and friends, roots and communities. It was, as Allyson Hobbs writes, a chosen exile. This history of passing explores the possibilities, challenges, and losses that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions.

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